BIDDEFORD, Maine — Under a tent and a spectacular October evening, Sara Gideon greets supporters at another of her “Suppers with Sara." She’s been holding these events around Maine since the campaign for Senate began last year. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the suppers for months, but then they resumed, socially distanced, with masks and box lunches instead of community dinners.
But the suppers help the campaign connect and let Gideon remind people of key issues like climate change.
"...[A]nd what we should be doing on a national level, setting aggressive goals to cut carbon emissions,” Gideon said, reminding supporters as well of her commitment to the issue. On a state level, the candidate said as she spoke with about 50 people in an open-sided tent.
The suppers are also a reminder to make sure those people actually turn out to vote, crucial if Maine’s current Speaker of the House is going to win election to the U.S. Senate.
It’s a job, Gideon says, where you can make a difference in people’s lives.
“And that’s really what inspired me to run for the Senate today because whether we are thinking of who isn’t able to access health care or a doctor when they need one, whether thinking of the fact climate change is upon us farmers feel it, fishermen feel it, loggers feel it," Gideon said. "We see it in everything we know and love in this state. I know we can take these problems on and actually make a difference.”
Gideon says she never planned to get into politics when she and her husband moved to Maine in 2003, but six years later, a phone call came, asking him to run for Freeport’s town council. Sara Gideon says she decided to run and was elected. Three years later, she was elected to a seat in Maine’s House of Representatives.
Gideon rose through the ranks quickly. After just one term, fellow Democrats chose her to be assistant majority leader of the House. Two years later, she was elected as speaker of the House, at that time, the top Democrat in the State House.
She was subsequently elected to a second term which she is currently serving.
Gideon says one of her major goals has been to work across party lines and believes she has accomplished that.
“Whether you think about building a climate council, or set renewable energy goals or decreasing carbon emissions or passing a budget, those had to be done with participation of Republicans and Independents and Democrats as well, and that’s how we came to a solution," Gideon said.
In her first year as speaker, a budget battle with House Republicans and now-former Gov. Paul LePage led to a three-day state government shutdown.
“As you know, Gov. Paul LePage was a very difficult person to work with,” Gideon said.
They were finally able to agree on a solution to break the budget deadlock. Gideon says it taught a lesson.
“Listen, government is a process of doing what’s right and standing up for people, but also making compromises as well," she said.
In the current Legislature, Democrats had a strong majority, and have only needed GOP votes for a few key issues, including the budget that passed with overwhelming support, but Gideon says she still tried to keep a bridge to the other party.
“But we did reach across the aisle. Look, I think this is one of the fundamentally important things about my style and the way I lead.”
So how would Gideon vote in the Senate? She avoided typical labels of moderate or progressive and says to look at her record in Augusta.
"You can look at what I've done in the State House and see how I will stand up for Mainers. It means I will be looking to cut taxes for middle income and low-income people. It means I will be protecting Social Security which will include making sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share to do that. I will be someone willing to attack climate change knowing it’s a problem that affects every part of our lives.”
On the key issue of health care, Gideon says she does not support the Medicare for All proposal but does favor a mix of public and private health insurance where those who choose could buy into the Medicare program, while others could continue paying for private insurance.
On taxes, her focus is undoing part or all of the 2017 Trump tax city law, which her opponent Susan Collins supported.
“There are 91 companies in America today that pay $0 for taxes that did three years ago. To me, that would be the starting point to look at.”
As she talks with the crowd at the supper in Biddeford, Gideon touches on some of the same points. Many have been core Democratic issues or years, but Gideon says they have all been negatively affected by President Trump and the GOP, including Social Security, which comes up in ads for both Gideon and her Republican rival, incumbent Sen. Susan Collins.
“Social Security is constantly in danger, and…we need solutions that protect it and make it more solvent.”
In all recent polls that have been made public, Gideon has the lead, ranging from a one percentage point margin to as high as seven points. Both campaigns, however, are saying the race is neck and neck, and many of Maine’s political observers say it could still go either way. With two Independents also running for Senate, it could well have to be decided by ranked-choice voting.